At Center Stage, 'The Wiz' is all about coming home

Four Maryland performers return to their roots for the pioneering musical

  • Center Stage will present a revival of the breakthrough musical The Wiz, featuring, among others, four Baltimore-area performers Eric B. Anthony (Scarecrow, left), Kristen N. Dowtin (Dorothy), Jonathan Burke and LaTrisa Harper (ensembles).
Center Stage will present a revival of the breakthrough musical… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
September 24, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Sometimes, there really is no place like home.

When "The Wiz" blows into Center Stage on Wednesday, the show itself, as well as several of the actors in it, will be returning to the city where it all began.

It was in Baltimore that the groundbreaking musical had its first production. "The Wiz," which retells L. Frank Baum's beloved story in the context of African-American culture, held its world premiere at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on Oct. 21, 1974.

The musical went on to Broadway, where it won seven Tony Awards and proved that a show with an all-black cast could attract a crossover audience of middle-class white theatergoers.

"The Wiz," like the novel on which it is based, is all about the importance of honoring roots and cherishing family — themes that resonate strongly with four cast members in particular. Two are former Baltimoreans, one hails from Columbia, and one still lives in White Plains in Charles County.

Each of the twenty-somethings had to overcome significant obstacles in order to stand on a stage on North Calvert Street and sing "The Tornado Ballet." Each is looking forward to, and maybe dreading a little, spotting a familiar face in the audience. And each is crafting a performance that will have something to express about the perils and joys of coming home.

Here are their stories:

Eric B. Anthony

When Eric B. Anthony learned that he would be playing the Scarecrow in "The Wiz," his first thought was "Oh my God. My mother will see me play this role. I've been on Broadway three times, and it does not compare, it does not compare to this moment."

When Anthony tries to talk about his mother, Wyvonne Lawson, who gave birth to him when she was just 16, he becomes so emotional that it's a struggle to speak.

"To see my mom go from food stamps and welfare to being rewarded and promoted at the Social Security Administration, where she's worked for the past 20 years, makes me so proud," he says. "She is my best friend and my hero."

Luckily, Lawson's talented, gregarious son was endlessly amusing. According to family lore, from the time Anthony was 18 months old, he was entertaining customers at his grandfather's candy store on Edmondson Avenue.

He began his performing education behind the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"My grandfather got me a 4-by-4 board, and my grandmother bought me my first pair of tap shoes," Anthony says. "I literally taught myself how to tap dance in the alley behind the skating rink."

His natural talents were sharpened first at Arena Players and later at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson. Anthony was cast as a member of the ensemble in the original Broadway productions of "Hairspray" and " Mary Poppins," and he has also appeared on the Great White Way in "The Lion King."

But for Anthony, portraying the Scarecrow will be a career high.

"Performing this role in this play in my hometown," Anthony says, "is the biggest deal of my professional life to date."

Kristin Dowtin

At age 19, Dowtin was an established veteran of the Broadway stage. When she was 12 years old, she was cast as Young Nala in "The Lion King," and as she grew older, her delicate beauty and versatility — she can act, dance and sing — kept her steadily in the footlights.

But shortly after she graduated from college, the White Plains resident became pregnant.

"It was hard to handle," she says. "I had been getting roles, and I thought I was never going to act again. When I was four months' pregnant, I was asked to play Adult Nala on Broadway, and I had to pass on it."

Dowtin and her baby's father, her high school sweetheart, were no longer together. But though she hadn't wanted to be a single mother, she never considered the alternatives.

"I've always had a picture of what I wanted in my life," she says, "and family is part of that. So I decided I just had to woman up."

Dowtin's mother and her grandmother guided the young woman through her pregnancy. They encouraged her when she feared that her career might be over before it really began.

"They are my rocks," she says.

Evan Dowtin-Bentley was born March 31, 2009, and six months later, Dowtin began auditioning again. It wasn't until May that she landed a role in a show, but it was a good one: She is portraying Dorothy in Center Stage's production of 'The Wiz.'

Her performance will be dedicated in part to Evan.

"Evan is one of the best things that's ever happened to me," Dowtin says. "He is the joy of my heart."

LaTrisa Harper

When the tiny woman with the lilt to her voice takes the stage as a Munchkin, a Funky Monkey and in other equally distinctive roles, it will be as much a triumph for the people who raised her as it is for the actress/dancer/singer.

It will mean that all the tumult of Harper's early years was worth it. It will indicate that young children can emerge intact from contested custody cases and — with the help of the adults who love them — flourish.

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